The other day a group of my friends were playing the old game of “What’s the best book you’ve ever read?”
Having played the game before, I knew my answer. I have read almost constantly for 60 years, so I have a lot of choices. But Harper Lee wins, every time I think about it. This diminutive southern lady published To Kill A Mockingbird 55 years ago, then never wrote again (or so we thought).
I don’t hold Harper Lee up in comparison with other great authors. There are thousands of talented writers, and for each of their works there are another thousand arguments why this and that are better than this book or that one. And for all of those discussions, there is more than one “right” answer.
But I don’t care because Harper Lee is the writer who, more than anyone else, makes me experience the things she writes about. I don’t care to stand on either side or any social issues Harper Lee addressed. I simply love to read what she writes. Every sentence, every paragraph, every idea is an immense pleasure for me, and that is all I’ve ever asked of any real writer. I’m a writer too, and if I could be as good as I’d like to be, I’d be as good as Harper Lee.
Some years ago, we performed the stage version of Mockingbird, and I clearly recall my good friend and director Jeff talking to the cast during rehearsals. He said (and I may not be quoting him directly here) that we could work on the characters and the deliveries and the dialects, but until we had a sense of the way time passed in Alabama in the 1930s, we’d never get it right. He said something about how the sense of time in the South in those days was like “moving through molasses.” And when he said it, I realized that’s what Harper Lee had already done for me. Within the first few pages of Mockingbird, she described her fictional Alabama childhood by saying “Maycomb was a tired old town when I first knew it.” Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes a writer says it in a way that makes you think there’s just no better way to say it.
I suspect there are a lot of readers out there who feel the same way. It isn’t an argument about “who’s best.” Harper Lee is so good that we don’t even care about the argument; we just want her to write another book.
And, it turns out, she has.
You can read about Go Set A Watchman in a hundred thousand places on the internet, so I won’t take your time with it here. According to those stories, she wrote Watchman first and it was rejected by the publishers. One of them suggested she write about the earlier lives of these characters, and she wrote Mockingbird. The rest was history. Watchman was discovered relatively recently, and I can only assume that Harper Lee is pleased that it’s probably already on the bestseller lists. That’s really not my point. If you want all the details, “Google it,” as they say in the vernacular of the instantly gratified.
My reason for writing today is to tell my friends who have loved Harper Lee and Mockingbird for 55 years that Go Set A Watchman is every bit as good. It’s a gratifying story, just not instantly so, because nothing in the Old South is instant.
I would never serve as a “spoiler” to those who love to read her. But I can’t resist one tiny paragraph (early in the book) just to let you know what you’re in for. Here is Harper Lee as Scout returns home and enjoys needling her aunt:
“Atticus raised his eyebrows in warning. He watched his daughter’s daemon rise and dominate her: her eyebrows, like his, were lifted, the heavy-lidded eyes beneath them grew round, and one corner of her mouth was raised dangerously. When she looked thus, only God and Robert Browning knew what she was likely to say.”
I didn’t copy and paste that. I typed it, word for word. And pretended, for a moment, that I wrote it.
To those of you who don’t care about Harper Lee or To Kill A Mockingbird, I’m pretty certain this exercise has been a waste of your time.
But to those of you who love her, it wasn’t a waste of mine.